Back in the 1950s, little Bentonville, Arkansas, birthed a retail giant, and today it has even more claims to fame.
By Anna Lee Braunstein, F351629
A Walmart, to RVers, usually represents a free, safe place to park for the night, with convenient shopping as an added bonus. Staying overnight is so much a part of RV culture that FMCA and other RV organizations support an RVers’ Good Neighbor Policy regarding the use of retailers’ parking lots. We are most appreciative for Walmart’s kindness.
In its hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas, Walmart provides more than free RV parking. It offers excellent, and free, museums and historic sites.
To be in the center of Bentonville is to step back into the 1950s, when Sam and James Walton opened Walton’s 5 & 10. The store is now part of the Walmart Museum on North Main Street, right across from Public Square Park.
The vintage 5 & 10 takes visitors back to the days when jacks, tops, and pick-up sticks entertained children for hours. Nostalgia shares shelf space with well-remembered and some newfound treasures. Next door is a classic ice cream shop with soda jerks dressed in white bib aprons, black ties, and pointed hats. The songs of Elvis or Peggy Lee float lightly in the air.
Continuing your nostalgia trip in the visitors center, the first thing to enjoy is the introductory film about Sam Walton and how Walmart came to be. Sam, born in Oklahoma in 1918, moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to take a job at JC Penney. There he honed his skills in retailing. In 1942 he resigned to join the Army, and the next year, he married Helen Robson.
After World War II, Sam and his younger brother, James (also called Bud), bought their first store, a Ben Franklin. They sold that franchise and, in 1950, opened Walton’s 5 & 10. Then, in 1962, they opened the first Wal-Mart Discount City in nearby Rogers, Arkansas.
The Waltons’ philosophy of marketing, controlling inventory, keeping shelves well-stocked, and discounting prices fueled the growth of what would become the world’s largest retailer. Their accomplishments brought President George H.W. Bush to Bentonville in early 1992 to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sam shortly before the founder’s death that April.
The museum includes photographs of Sam, Helen, and their four children, as well as early stores. One case displays Sam’s military uniform. Drawers contain memorabilia from Walton family history. One display that brings chuckles features items such as a pencil sharpener that was returned to a Walmart store because, the customer said, “It doesn’t sharpen any ink pens.”
Paintings include one by Brendan O’Connell, a contemporary artist known for depicting items on ordinary stocked shelves in Walmarts. His portrayal of the original Walton’s 5 & 10 building is titled “Art of Retail.”
One of Sam Walton’s greatest pleasures was driving his 1979 Ford half-ton pickup truck. It is on display with the original papers still in the glove compartment. A duplicate truck is parked at the curb in front of the visitors center.
A refreshment break continues the nostalgia. Just steps from Sam’s truck is the Spark Café Soda Fountain. Reminiscent of an old-fashioned soda shop, it is housed in the 1888 Terry Block Building. The ice cream comes from Yarnell’s, an Arkansas favorite, and, as previously noted, it’s served by soda jerks dressed in 1950s-styled outfits.
The Walmart Museum is open daily. For more information, visit www.corporate.walmart.com or call (479) 273-1329.
Back outside at Public Square Park, you can admire the statue of James Henderson Berry, a Confederate soldier with the 16th Arkansas Infantry Regiment who became governor of Arkansas. The buildings that surround the square represent the history of this town. Many are on the National Register of Historic Places. Bogart Hardware Building and Roy’s Office Supply Building were both built in 1885. The Massey Hotel dates to 1910, and the courthouse to 1928. Public Square is the center of community activity, hosting farmers markets, holiday events, musical performances, and art walks throughout the year.
Two more nearby museums command attention. The first is one of the top art museums in the United States. Funded by Alice Walton, Sam’s daughter, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art features some of the earliest paintings of the Colonial America era.
Alice has used her vast fortune to amass an outstanding collection of art that spans five centuries and attracts visitors with a broad range of artistic tastes. The museum building was designed by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie, and is itself a work of art, featuring a series of pavilions constructed around and over ponds in a wooded setting. Works include a Norman Rockwell image of Rosie the Riveter, a Jamie Wyeth portrait titled “Orca Bates,” and a Gilbert Stuart depiction of George Washington that originally was owned by Alexander Hamilton. Docents and audio guides provide excellent narratives about the collection.
The fields at the entrance of Crystal Bridges are strewn with Tom Otterness’ “Makin’ Hay,” fanciful statues stuffed with hay and standing in assorted poses. The gardens surrounding the museum are lined with trails mingling art with nature.
A new addition is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that was moved from New England to the property earlier in 2014 and is being painstakingly reassembled. The Bachman Wilson House was threatened by frequent flooding from the Millstone River near its former location in Millstone, New Jersey. The home is scheduled to open to the public in Bentonville in the spring of 2015.
Like RV parking at Walmart stores, parking, entry fees, and docent-led audio tours at Crystal Bridges are free. Visitors can dine on-site at Eleven, a restaurant that offers “Modern American comfort food.” (It was named for the date the museum opened: 11-11-11.) Crystal Bridges is open Wednesday through Monday (closed on Tuesdays). For more information, visit www.crystalbridges.org or call (479) 418-5700.
A short distance from the town center, the Peel Mansion Museum & Heritage Gardens offer another opportunity to step back in time. The Italianate structure, built by Colonel Samuel West Peel in 1875, is enhanced by antiques and artifacts. The Compton Gardens, planted in the mid-1920s, are the setting for the Bentonville Conference Center. The mansion is open Tuesday through Saturday from March to mid-December; free tours are offered every hour on the hour and last 30 to 45 minutes. For more information, visit www.peelcompton.org or call (479) 254-3870.
The third major museum in town is the Museum of Native American History. It chronicles the lives of the earliest people on the continent. A 12,000-year-old Siberian woolly mammoth fossil towers over the entrance. Visitors travel through 14,000 years of American Indian history, viewing dioramas portraying daily life of various eras and inspecting display cases filled with artifacts both practical and ceremonial. An “audio wand” provides narration for the exhibits. This museum also offers free admission and is open Monday through Saturday. For more information, visit www.monah.us or call (479) 273-2456.
Bentonville is in the northwest corner of Arkansas, near the borders of Missouri and Oklahoma. It is a short drive from lovely Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and lively Branson, Missouri. In autumn the town is ablaze with color and also a little-known leaf-peeper destination. But whenever you visit, you can plan to enjoy nostalgia, art, and beauty.
Bentonville Convention & Visitors Bureau
104 E. Central
Bentonville, AR 72712
The Bentonville Walmart Supercenter, at 406 S. Walton Blvd., permits overnight RV parking in a certain portion of the lot. Please call ahead to confirm (479-273-0060) and remember to abide by the RVers’ Good Neighbor Policy. A copy of the policy appears in the January and June issues of FMC and may be obtained online at FMCA.com at www.fmca.com/images/stories/pdf/boondocking_letter.pdf.